The NBA is reaching the portion of the season we always knew would hit. Several games have now been postponed by COVID infections and contact tracing, and more are sure to come.
We always knew this was coming. Nobody was under any false allusions that the NBA would have smooth sailing as it followed a COVID gameplan not too different from the path carved by MLB and the NFL. As we know, the NFL has had to reschedule plenty of games to later days in a given week and at times basically turn a blind eye when it suited them, and MLB had to do things like bus home a team of sick Miami Marlins from Philadelphia.
Things haven’t gone this route yet for the NBA, fortunately, but the league reached a clear inflection point over the weekend. The league has already postponed three games; the first a Miami Heat versus Boston Celtics game on Sunday night, the second a Dallas Mavericks versus New Orleans Pelicans game on Monday night, and the Chicago Bulls game versus the Boston Celtics on Tuesday will be postponed as well.
This is in addition to Saturday’s game between the Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets where the Sixers dressed seven healthy players after nearly half the roster was ruled out for contact tracing as a result of Seth Curry’s positive test.
These postponements have been more a result of a few positive COVID cases spilling into expansive contact tracing investigations. For example, a team with a couple of standard injuries that then gets five or six players ruled out due to COVID tracing suddenly becomes ineligible to play, even without any positive cases themselves.
Obviously, there are legitimate questions surrounding the wisdom of playing a professional sports season during a pandemic. As a multi-billion dollar industry, the NBA is highly invested in seeing these games get played and a season completed once again, and the potential health risks and concerns of players playing after getting COVID have been argued and stated ad nauseam.
What should the NBA do about this growing COVID problem?
What the NBA should do is to utilize some of the advantages built into the system this season. For starters, with only half the schedule released, games like the Sixers vs. Nuggets on Saturday should never have been played. While the Nuggets were in the midst of a rare East Coast swing and postponing the game would be inconvenient, figuring out a date later in the season to play it is just part of the messy business of playing a professional sports season during a pandemic.
It’s also probably time to bring the season to a brief pause in order to untangle this web of contact tracing and let some of the active COVID cases run their course. While the NBA appears determined to cram this season in so players can go to the Olympics in July, that might be easier said than done at this point.
Another alternative (albeit not a great one since players are simply going to be congregating by the nature of things on buses, planes and team benches) is to expand rosters to 19 players like the league discussed in the offseason. With a limited G League this year, there will be plenty of players willing and able to fill out the back end of rotations and benches on an emergency basis.
Expanding the player pool at a time like this can only benefit everybody.
As things stand now, in the next day or so the NBA and its Board of Governors will meet virtually to discuss which options are on the table. The season is far from lost, but the next few days could decide just how things play out for the rest of 2020-21.